When you think of archeology, you imagine diligent and extremely patient Indiana Jones types hunched over cordoned-off patches of dirt, cleaning the dirt almost grain by grain with tiny brushes. Today, archaeologists have added another indispensable tool to their kits: 3D technology. 3D scanning and modeling have become invaluable tools for archaeologists, who use the sophisticated imaging and modeling capability of 3D technology in a variety of ways, including creating 3D printed models to study while preserving the originals.
The York Archaeological Trust in England is using 3D scanning and modeling to help them solve a fascinating mystery involving the ancient Romans and their notorious fighters, the gladiators.
By the time the ancient Romans had extended their empire to the far reaches of the British Isles and, in particular, to the region of north-west England which is now York, the region had already been inhabited for around 6,000 years, perhaps -to be more. 1,800 years ago, when the Romans established a colony and legionary stronghold in York, which they called Eboracum, the already thriving city became a major hub. There was a huge military presence there and whenever Roman emperors visited their territory in Britain they stayed in Eboracum or today’s York.
In 2004, evidence of a strong Roman presence in the area was uncovered and 3D technology became a major archaeological tool in solving a particularly compelling mystery uncovered during excavations: who were the eighty people buried in a cemetery from Roman times on the outskirts of Eboracum, across the river from the fortress?
As Eboracum was an important crossroads, archaeologists were unsure if the eighty skeletons – all but one were male – were the remains of locals or immigrants. When they examined the bones more closely, they found that many showed signs of wounds that had healed. Incredibly, one skeleton had damage that suggested the man had been bitten by a large animal like a bear or lion, and about half of the skeletons showed clear evidence of having been decapitated at or shortly after death. . They were buried with their heads.
Trinity College Dublin geneticist Dan Bradley and several colleagues analyzed DNA from the skulls of seven of the skeletons and found that while nearly all of the men – all above average height for the time – were locals and actually matched the DNA of people who live in present-day Wales, one of the men who died was from “Palestine or Saudi Arabia”.
So who were these mysterious men? Skeletal evidence suggests that not only were they all taller than the average man of their time, but they were also quite muscular. Combined with the injuries they suffered, including animal bite, scientists speculate that they were gladiators or Roman soldiers, although the former seems more likely.
Tim Thompson and David Errickson of the York Archaeological Trust, which is overseeing the excavations and investigating the various finds, are creating 3D scans of possible gladiator bones to “research the types of bodily trauma” suffered by the men. In a YouTube video, Thompson and Errickson explain their 3D scanning process by demonstrating with a small bone that they carefully placed on a scanning carousel:
“The light from the projector hits the object, then the patterns of light wrap around the object and that’s how we create our 3D model. The camera creates the RGB ratios by overlaying the texture on the 3D model created by the projector.
The object is photographed and then the carousel is rotated 30 degrees. This process is repeated twelve times until the object has been completely rotated. Then the images are combined and, using 3D scanning and modeling software, a crisp 3D model of the bone is produced, which scientists can analyze to determine possible causes of a given injury, most notably by reducing the type of object that was used to inflict a given wound, be it a sword or ball club, mace or trident. Or the lion’s jaw.
The Gladiator Mystery of Driffield Terrace, the area of York in which the cemetery was discovered, is just one of many fascinating ongoing archaeological projects overseen by the York Archaeological Trust. Check their website for updates on the Gladiator Graveyard and other projects, including one titled “In Search of Valhalla,” which examines artifacts from the Viking Age. Discuss it in the 3D Technology Explores Gladiator History forum on 3DPB.com.
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